I’ve always loved and valued my friends, but I haven’t always been the BFF they need—I could be a much better friend. Similarly, I have friends who I know love me dearly, but sometimes they don’t give me what I need.
Like other relationships, friendships aren’t immune to interpersonal conflict or disappointment, which frequently arises from misunderstandings, inappropriate assumptions, or false beliefs.
Here are five common beliefs that might keep you from being the friend you really want to be.
Belief #1: Your friend needs to hear what you have to say
No, she doesn’t. She needs you to hear what she has to say.
Have you ever been listening to a friend’s tale of woes? Impatiently waiting to tell her what you think she needs to do? I know I’ve been guilty of this.
While my friend tries to be grateful for the advice, she’s probably steaming with resentment on the inside because that isn’t at all what she was looking for. What she wanted was to be heard.
Recently I was on the other side of this quandary. I had been feeling down in the proverbial dumps, and when I made the mistake of sharing this with a long-time girlfriend. I hoped for an empathetic ear, but I was bombarded with advice to “simply shift my perspective.”
Ironically, I teach wellness writing workshops in which perspective is a key focus of my work, so this wasn’t a new concept for me. However, I wasn’t looking for guidance on how to climb out of my low mood. I just wanted someone to know I was down there.
The more this friend lectured me with her quick-fix solution, the more her efforts backfired. By the time we hung up, I was ready to crawl under my covers for the next several weeks—and avoid her.
Writer Brenda Ueland said, “listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force… When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.”
Tip: Before you offer advice to a friend, consider her needs rather than yours. If she wants your help, she’ll ask.
Belief #2: Your personal experience applies to your friend’s situation
Not necessarily, and your job is to validate your friend’s circumstances, not your own.
There is truth to that adage that you can’t understand another person till you’ve walked a mile in her shoes. Yet, sharing your own (different) experience can be almost as bad as offering unsolicited advice. The irrelevance of your story might only prove that you don’t understand at all.
I recall a time when I was sharing some parenting issues I was experiencing with a friend. She shared her parenting approach, as though her style would have mitigated the problems we were having in our family. What she failed to acknowledge was that she and I were very different people, and our children differed from one another, too.
In fact, our family dynamics, life circumstances, and even personal values were different. By sharing her success story, she inadvertently failed to validate my situation. This oversight could have easily sabotaged a lifelong friendship.
In a commencement speech to Harvard graduates, Oprah Winfrey said the common denominator among all of us is “that we want to be validated. We want to be understood.” I know I want validation, and as a friend, this should be exactly what I offer to others.
Tip: Accept and acknowledge your friend’s circumstances and forget about yours.
Belief #3: Friendships will last no matter the distance
No, they probably won’t. And if they do, their strength will probably be diminished.
Today’s friendship landscape is ever-changing. We live in a geographically mobile society. Childhood BFFs move across the country because of their parents’ jobs. High school and college friends move for academic or professional reasons.
Adult friends accept transfers or new jobs which draw them miles away. In retirement years, friends leave yet again to follow their grandchildren or to retire to warmer climates. As much as we try to remain friends, it’s often not possible.
Like other species, we rely not only on sight but also on sound, smell, and especially touch. The problem with long-distance friendships is that we can’t use all of our senses to support one another. Imagine trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with your dog or cat!
People are different because they can use Facebook, Skype, email, and various other technologies to communicate. However, seeing one another on a 13-inch screen just doesn’t cut it for the long haul. You can’t offer a tissue for a tear over the Internet. You can’t feel the warmth of an embrace on Skype.
DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein suggested we can only identify one or two positive signals with our faces and voices, “but it seems instead that touch is a much more nuanced, sophisticated, and precise way to communicate emotions.”
Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, wrote that “if you’re close enough to touch, it’s often the easiest way to signal something. We feel more connected to someone if they touch us.”
Tip: Keep your long-distance friendship alive through frequent, varied communication technologies that incorporate sight and sound, and make sure you can arrange in-person meetups as often as possible.
Belief #4: Friendships really are forever
Actually, they’re frequently not. And that might be okay.
I always thought my mom was an excellent role model when it came to being a friend. She remained friends with her childhood BFF until her friend died in old age.
Even when we kids were young, she made time to see her friend frequently and chat on the phone. After we grew up, she visited with her friend at least once or twice a week.
When her friend became infirm from an incurable disease, my mom and dad would both help with errands, appointments, and so on. In watching this friendship, I learned early on that friendships are meant to last forever.
Years later, I learned this was a false belief. Over the course of my life, I’ve had several of my friends move on, usually because our lifestyles changed. For example, I got married and started a family when one of my closest friends was still happily single.
Naturally, my husband and I started hanging out at family-friendly events while my friend was taking belly-dancing classes and going to nightclubs with her untethered friends. She and I grew further and further apart, and it broke my heart. Yet, it also made complete sense.
Writer Melissa Copelton said that sometimes we force relationships out of habit that we’ve otherwise outgrown, and she suggested that, if you need to break up with a friend, you might say something like this: “I love you and I thank you for everything you have done for me over the years, but as life would have it, you’re headed one way and I’m heading another. We aren’t the same people we once were and as crazy as this sounds, it seems like our adult selves will not get along too well. Out of respect for the countless years of sleepovers, inside jokes, arguments, tears, parties and secrets, I will never wish you any ill will. In fact, I wish you the world.”
Tip: No matter what happens, always wish the world for your friend.
(Side note, the friend who slipped away from me two decades ago recently came back into my life as our ever-winding paths crossed once again. Since we wished the world for one another back then, we could re-ignite our friendship.)
Belief #5: Your romantic partner is more important than your friend
Wrong. They’re both important.
Remember when you were young and your best friend got a boyfriend (or girlfriend)? And you were suddenly on your own on Friday and Saturday nights, resentful that this new love interest was usurping your place? Eventually, your friend probably discovered that love doesn’t last, and you dried her tears until the next boyfriend came along.
Then we all grew up, and it became the standard that spouses would be our first priorities. Certainly, our spouses expected this, and perhaps rightfully so; after all, we don’t take till-death-do-us-part vows with our friends. But the harsh truth is that spouses can’t always fulfill our emotional needs, even with the best of intentions.
Sometimes we need someone else to whine to, or to confide in, or with whom we can occasionally let out our wild and crazy shadow selves and just have fun.
Remember these few simple tips to being a better friend
Listening to understand will always get you farther than listening to respond. It is more important to validate your friend’s feelings than it is to share your story. Friendships don’t always survive distance and time, but we learn something from every relationship we cultivate. Your friends and romantic partners are both important parts of your life.
If you can keep these things in mind, then you are well on your way to being a better friend. Share your thoughts about what makes a good friend in the comment section below.